Hokey Pokey Shakespeare

  by Gay Yellen

I was a shy child who spent a lot of time reading. At twelve, I fell in love with Shakespeare. I dove deep into the leather-bound tomes that lived on a bookshelf in our den. Comedies, tragedies, history plays. They fascinated me.

My favorite was Romeo and Juliet. I read Juliet’s balcony speech so many times, I had it memorized. Alone in my room, I would act it out over and over again.

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

Fast forward to college, when I needed one more requirement to graduate: a semester of Shakespeare. Rather than take it during the school year at my alma mater, I opted for a summer course offered by a university in my home town.

That decision almost ruined Shakespeare for me forever.

Instead of teaching us about Shakespeare’s gift with language, or the political tenor of the times, or the nature of tragedy, etc., the professor went on for hours interpreting his characters through an extreme Freudian lens. In every play, he’d point out that a dagger or sword represented the male sexual apparatus, poison stood for the biological exchange of body fluids, and so on. (Please don’t ask me about Desdemona’s handkerchief.)

Of course, Shakespeare plays can be bawdy, sensual, and full of innuendo. But that professor made everything icky. A summer (and tuition) was wasted. At least I got the credit, and I’ve learned a lot more since then, like this:

Shakespeare never meant for Juliet’s “balcony” speech to be delivered from a balcony.

According to a recent article in The Atlantic, that particular architectural construct did not exist in England when the play was written. Nor did the word “balcony” exist in the English language at the time.

Well over a decade after the play was first performed, a British diarist in Italy marveled at something he’d never seen in England: “a very pleasant little tarrasse, that jutteth or butteth out from the maine building, the edge whereof is decked with many prety litle turned pillers, either of marble or free stone to leane over… that people may from that place… view the parts of the City.”

If my old professor had known his history, I’m almost sure he wouldn’t have missed the chance to mention the thing that “jutteth” and “butteth.”

It’s okay to reinvent Shakespeare’s works with spoofs and spinoffs. Many writers have done it, and still do. Shakespeare borrowed from other writers, too.

The other day, I accidentally came across Shakespearean Hokey Pokey, in which punsters attempt to set their own Elizabethan-style lyrics to the tune of the popular children’s dance.

Hokey Pokey Shakespeare could also describe my bizarre Midsummer Night’s Dream experience in that weird professor’s classroom. But if you love The Bard, that’s not what it’s all about.

How do you feel about Shakespeare?


Gay Yellen writes the award-winning Samantha Newman Mystery SeriesThe Body Business, The Body Next Door. Coming soon, The Body in the News.


12 replies
  1. Bethany Averie
    Bethany Averie says:

    I love Shakespeare. Senior year of High School I got recommended for the Shakespeare class (instead of AP or regular English). I loved it! We did 7 Shakespeare plays and all his sonnets. My teacher did NOT interpret everything sexually (for which I thank God). She was lots of fun and our class adopted “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” from MACBETH because sometimes a quiz would be put off until the next day and she’d say “Okay, TOMORROW we’ll have the quiz.” and us students would go “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” and she’d say it, too. It was great fun. I ended up using “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” for a friend’s (this friend had been with me in that Shakespeare class) wedding when I was her Maid of Honor. When she died, I used it when I went up at her Wake to make a speech for her. (I think I said something along the lines of “I hope you get to enjoy Heaven ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow'”) I’m sure she probably “facepalmed” as she did at her wedding when I said to her and her husband: “As Shakespeare would say, good luck with ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”.” I was rather proud of myself for inserting that!

    • Gay Yellen
      Gay Yellen says:

      Bethany, what a wonderful English teacher you had! I love that you’ve carried that fun class with you through life. The memories you made back then are powerful reminders that deep friendships endure through all the tomorrows that come. Thank you for sharing them.

      • Bethany Averie
        Bethany Averie says:

        I forgot to mention that my parents took me to Shakespeare plays in the summer at the outdoor theater when I was younger. It was so much fun (although generally hot). I also saw the ballet of “Romeo & Juliet” and the opera of MACBETH (I don’t remember much from the opera to be honest LOL).

  2. Donnell Ann Bell
    Donnell Ann Bell says:

    I would love to be more versed in Shakespeare, and I confess I’m jealous of Bethany’s early English exposure. What a waste to make everything about sex. We’re supposed to be the superior species. Sorry that course was such a bad experience. Glad you didn’t give up on your love of Shakespeare, Gay.

  3. Lois Winston
    Lois Winston says:

    Ralph, the African Grey parrot my sleuth inherited, is a master of squawking situation-appropriate Shakespearean quotes. Me? I have to rely on Open Source Shakespeare. However one of my more interesting Shakespeare experiences was the time I had a front row seat for a Broadway performance of The Tempest, and Patrick Stewart kicked sand on me!

  4. Saralyn Richard
    Saralyn Richard says:

    Love that the balcony scene wasn’t a balcony scene at all! And boo! hiss! for the instructor who attempted to ruin your love of Shakespeare by interpreting every line and object through his own disappointing lens.

  5. Ken Oder
    Ken Oder says:

    Great post, Gay! As a Shakespeare enthusiast, I’m aghast at the professor’s Freudian interpretation. Says more about him than the bard, me thinks. My soul mate was Hamlet. Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I! The professor, too! Ken

Comments are closed.